You’re at the steering wheel, intent on getting to work, school, or the beach for a little vacay. But if you’re yawning, you’re likely facing sleep deprivation. In our 24/7 society, this is an all-too-common problem. Drowsy driving is not the only risk of getting too little sleep. Your sex life, memory, mental health, and your overall health can also suffer. (1)
Quite simply, sleep deprivation is a condition that occurs if you don't get sufficient sleep – between seven and nine hours. Sleep is basic to human existence, just like eating, drinking and breathing. A good night’s sleep is critical to good health and well-being.
Over time, sleep deprivation leads to sleep deficiency – a more serious chronic problem that spurs some physical and mental health problems, injuries, loss of productivity, and even a greater risk of death. (2)
Sleep deficiency causes fatigue during the day. You can't focus on your work or driving. You feel groggy when you wake up. You're more likely to feel irritated, so you're not as friendly at work.
Your sleepiness will factor into your symptoms. If you are sleep deficient, you will often doze off while:
Sleep deprivation symptoms can also involve focusing, reacting and learning. You may have trouble solving problems, making decisions, remembering things, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. If you’re sleep-deprived, you may take longer to finish work -- and make more mistakes.
Children who are sleep deficient might be overly active and have difficulty paying attention. They may misbehave, get bad grades, or have trouble in school. Sleep-deprived children often act impulsively and have mood swings – expressing anger, sadness, depression, or lack of motivation. (3)
Drowsy driving is a physical symptom of sleep deprivation. Research shows that drowsy-driving crashes most frequently occur between midnight and 6 a.m., or in the late-afternoon. Both times occur when a dip takes place in your circadian rhythm (the internal body clock that regulates sleep).
These crashes often involve only a single vehicle, with no passengers, going off the road at a high rate of speed and no evidence of braking. Very frequently, drowsy-driving crashes occur on rural roads and highways. (4)
Estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other agencies show the number of deaths due to drowsy driving can range from 5,000 to as high as 8,000 in one year – and 500,000 injuries.
It’s not just accidents causing the deaths. A 2007 British study bears this out, tracking more than 10,000 British civil servants over two decades. The results showed that those who cut their sleep to five hours or fewer a night had nearly twice the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. (5)
Accidents are more likely to occur off the road, too. A study in Great Britain found that sleep-deprived workers had significantly more work accidents, often the same type of accident repeatedly, and considerably more sick days per work accident. (6)
Sleep is critical to brain function -- clear thinking and focus. Sleep deprivation affects multiple cognitive processes including attention span, alertness, and concentration. You will likely have trouble solving problems if you are sleep-deprived. Your judgment will also be impaired.
That’s because sleep cycles are critical to “consolidating” memories in the brain. Without sufficient sleep, you have trouble remembering what you have learned that day or the day before. (7)
Research shows that insomniacs have a 10-fold increased risk of developing anxiety and depression. Women were at greater risk of depression than men. These depressed people had a variety of insomnia symptoms. Some reported difficulty falling asleep, others had difficulty staying asleep, and they reported unrefreshing sleep and daytime sleepiness. Those who experienced trouble falling and staying asleep had the highest risk of depression. (8)
Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, is most strongly linked with depression. In a 2007 study of 10,000 people, those with insomnia were five times as likely to develop depression. In fact, insomnia is often one of the first symptoms of depression. In fact, sleep deprivation can make depression worse, and when we're depressed, it's harder to fall asleep – and stay asleep. However, when you get treatment for sleep problems, your depression can improve. (9)
Symptoms of sleep deprivation in adults include lower libido and less interest in sex. Fatigue, low energy, sleepiness, and increased tension may be involved.
Men with sleep apnea may be especially prone to this problem. Sleep apnea is a respiratory issue that interrupts sleep and is more common with obesity. One study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests that many men with sleep apnea also have low testosterone levels. The study found that nearly half of the people with severe sleep apnea secreted deficient levels of testosterone during the night. (10)
Weight gain is another physical symptom of sleep deprivation in adults. Lack of sleep seems to boost hunger and appetite, possibly leading to obesity. One study found that when people slept less than six hours a day, they were at 30 percent higher risk of gaining weight compared to others who got an adequate seven to nine hours of sleep.
Researchers have found that sleep affects the peptides that regulate appetite – specifically ghrelin, which stimulates hunger, and leptin, which suppresses appetite. When we sleep less, we have less leptin and higher levels of ghrelin. Sleep loss also stimulates cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. (11)
Sleep deprivation isn't just an adult's problem. A 2014 study from the National Sleep Foundation found that 90 percent of children were not getting enough sleep. Kids between ages six and 11 should get more than nine hours every night; older children are advised to get over eight hours. (12)
Improving your family’s sleep habits will go a long way toward solving your problem. Instead of squeezing sleep out of your busy schedule, make time for it. You'll find the next day is much more productive when you've had an adequate sleep. You can get more accomplished with a clear brain and a happier attitude. (13)
Napping during the day provides a nice boost in alertness and performance. However, you may have trouble falling asleep at night, so take shorter naps earlier in the afternoon. Adults should nap no longer than 20 minutes. Preschool children should nap regularly as it promotes healthy growth and development.
While you may turn to coffee or energy drinks to stay alert, that’s not always enough. The effects last only a brief time, and you might not be as alert as you think.
You might have "micro sleep," which is a short loss of consciousness that can last four or five seconds. If that happens, and you're driving 55 miles per hour, you will have traveled over 100 yards down the road while asleep. You can cause a crash in that time.
If you getting sleepy while you’re driving, drink 1-2 cups of coffee. Then pull over for a short 20-minute nap in a safe place like a rest stop. Studies have shown this will help increase your alertness for a short time (14).
If you continue to have sleep problems and symptoms of sleep deprivation, it's time to talk with your doctor. You may have insomnia. Symptoms include trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both which results in too little sleep or poor-quality sleep. When you have insomnia, you won't feel refreshed when you wake up.
Insomnia can be a short-term or chronic problem. Work-related stress, family pressures or a traumatic event can trigger short-term insomnia for a few days or several weeks.
Chronic insomnia lasts longer -- a month or more. Very often it is caused by a medical condition, medicines and sleep disorders (like sleep apnea).
To help your doctor, keep a sleep diary for 1 or 2 weeks. Write down the times when you go to bed, wake up, and take naps. Be honest with yourself. Also, keep track of how many hours sleep you get each night – and how sleepy you feel during the day. (15)
With a physical exam, your doctor can rule out medical problems that might cause insomnia. You may need blood tests to check for thyroid problems or other conditions that can cause sleep problems.
Your doctor may prescribe a sleep study called a polysomnogram (PSG) if there’s evidence of an underlying sleep disorder causing your insomnia.
For the sleep study, you will stay overnight at a sleep center. Monitors will track your brain activity, eye movements, heart rate and blood pressure. The monitoring will also monitor your breathing, snoring and other movements to determine if you’re having difficulty breathing.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can even be life-threatening. With sleep apnea, the person's breathing repeatedly stops and starts through the night. If you snore loudly and feel tired after a full night's sleep, you may have sleep apnea. (16)
You may not think of snoring as a sign of a potentially serious medical condition - and some people who snore don't have sleep apnea. But be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience loud snoring, especially snoring with periods of silence.
Sleep deprivation of any type can have serious repercussions. If you are always tired and sleep-deprived, you owe it to yourself – and your family – to get the problem under control.